To a great many people the Fourth of July is the anniversary of the day upon which the Continental Congress of the United States adopted the Declaration of Independence. In our family the holiday had no such chauvinistic significance. It was the first day of the year upon which our father went nuts.
The frustrating thing about the Fourth of July is that even if it weren't against the law to shoot off firecrackers, it's impossible to have a good old-fashioned Glorious Fourth. Even if you had a hand-churn ice cream freezer, a 12-foot wool serge flag that smelled of mothballs, and a Pierce-Arrow touring car with jump seats and little containers for flags on the braces that support the windshield, the essential ingredient would be missing. What you really need for a Glorious Fourth is an old-fashioned father.
We had a dandy, a stern, aloof German disciplinarian who made sure on 363 days of the year that we all toed the mark. On the other two days of the year—the Fourth of July and Christmas—a peculiar state of mind came over him. On Christmas Eve he put on his moth-eaten Santa suit and strung bells around his neck. On the night of the third of July he came home pumping wildly on the Klaxon car horn, with the tonneau filled with red devils, giant aerial flash bombs, jumbo salutes, flying wings, Roman candles, whistling piccolo petes, 10-inch sparklers, jumbo lawn fountains, magic black snakes, aerial stars, golden cones, pop-bottle rockets, meteor showers and punks that looked like tiny cattails and had little squares of Chinese communication wrapped around them.
The remarkable thing about these special days is that upon them we were immune from the consequences of wrongdoing. Even the most flagrant flouting of ordinary discipline would elicit from Father only the remark, with a flap of a big awkward flounder hand, "Forget it. It's the Fourth of July!"
In those days the father of a family was the patriarch, the master of the household and all within it, from wife to lowliest child. If a father acted like that nowadays they'd rush him off for treatment at a family mental health clinic, but then it was considered de rigueur. No family head today could communicate the wild excitement our father did when he lowered the wall. If anyone had suggested to him that he try palship and togetherness with his family on the other 363 days of the year, he would have turned purple, undulated his eyebrows and popped his pale blue eyes in bellowing outrage. "Gott verdammt!" he would have dismissed such lese majesty. What modern child, whose domesticated sire pushed him in his perambulator and changed his diapers, can understand this?
The send-off of the Fourth of July was in the dark cave of the front porch, rich with the smell of dust and camphor balls, shadowed and secret behind the enormous flag hung by its brass eyelets to nails permanently in place along the porch rafter. From the porch cave the flag glittered with the strong California sun that pricked through an abundance of tiny moth holes. There was always a lot of discussion on the right way to hang the flag. Father thought that it should look frontwards from the street in front of the house. My mother, who liked to sit in the shadow in her rocker behind the flag, liked it frontways to her. In a hurry, I still can't tell definitely which is my right hand and which the left hand, because we learned to salute the flag on the front porch. The proper hand seemed to alter according to whether we were standing on the lawn or behind the flag. Oh, hell, I'll never get it straightened out.
Father placed his hand dramatically over his heart, squared his shoulders and looked solemn upon entering or leaving the house while the flag was on display. We little ones were suffocated with pride and love of country, running in and out of the house a hundred times a day for the overpowering surge of emotion the flag aroused in us. We painted flags with red and blue ink on the backs of our hands, on our arms and legs. We made lopsided paper flags to paste on the windows and spent our savings on little Japanese silk flags, which we fastened by their frail black sticks to our clothes. We came by this passionate devotion to the flag—as a thing worthy of love in itself—from my mother, who simply adored it. She hung the flag at the drop of a hat, celebrating such lesser events in history as Custer's Last Stand, the Battle of Bull Run, California Admission Day, the charge up San Juan Hill, Teddy Roosevelt's birthday, the midnight ride of Billy Dawes (from whom she was descended in some obscure fashion), the San Francisco earthquake, and Alexander Graham Bell's first speech on the telephone. When she couldn't think of an appropriate historical occasion, she hung it out to discourage moths. She left it up a full week for Lindbergh and, I have no doubt, would have left it up for a month for Alan Shepard if she were still with us.
The storing of the flag between engagements was fraught with as much emotion as the taking down of the Christmas tree. Mother would stand tipsy-tilty on her porch rocker and unfasten all the little brass eyelets, dropping the flag in dusty folds into the waiting arms of at least two uniquely honored children who were scared silly by the unthinkable danger of letting it fall to the floor. Then with cautious, toe-feeling steps we'd make our processional up the stairs to the storage closet in Father's bedroom and wait on trembling legs while Mother lifted the lid of the trunk and pressed the flag down into its nest of tissue paper. Whew! On our frail arms had rested the whole destiny of the nation.
We weren't supposed to set off firecrackers until Father's show, held on the big circular front lawn after dark, but of course we'd been firing them off for weeks, at a discreet distance from the house. We obtained our firecrackers—not the sparklers and tame stuff Father issued to us, but our very own firecrackers—in a fashion that still may be going on in backwoods sections. Along in May and June, muffgers would run little display ads in the
Los Angeles Times
offering propositions to "junior salesmen." The ads read:
"Kids! Earn your own giant salutes! Firecrackers easy to sell! Everybody wants them! Jumbo packs contain 24, sell like hotcakes! Write Nippon Mfgr. Co. for details. You pay nothing until you sell all! Earn cash or 'crackers!!"